Is Your Leadership Team at the Edge?

5 ways to evaluate them.

By Anthony Zecca

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” – Andrew Carnegie, industrialist

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The above quote by Andrew Carnegie really puts a fence around the key responsibilities of your leadership team:

  • Ability to lead their team to work together toward a common vision
  • Ability to direct (drive) their individual team members’ efforts and accomplishments toward maintaining alignment with the firm’s objectives and
  • Ability to inspire and motivate each team member to achieve more than they have and to reach top performance and top results as a team

Except in the smallest of firms, the firm leader has a group beneath him that forms the leadership team (practice leaders, marketing, finance, industry leaders, etc.). The leadership team could be structured along service lines (e.g., head of audit, head of tax, etc.), geography (e.g., regional managing partners, office managing partners) or some combination. The structure does not matter – the type of leader does.

The question for the firm’s Edge leader is, how do you assess the effectiveness of the leadership team you depend on? How do you assess whether the members of your leadership team are Edge leaders or center leaders? There are a ton of articles relating to assessing leadership. I think most of them are way too extensive and end up diluting the ability to assess your team along some very key measures of effectiveness and leadership.

“Assessing team leaders is looking at how their teams are performing, how and what they are communicating to their team members and their commitment to their leadership responsibilities.” – Robert Minkler Jr., leader of Anders CPAs

Here are the measures I suggest you use to evaluate whether your leadership team reflects Edge leadership that is aligned with your Edge leadership:

  1. Team building and judgment of people: Every member of the leadership team needs to excel at and be focused on team building and being able to effectively judge the individuals who work with them. Each leader needs to excel at the three bulleted skills noted above. A leader can’t be an Edge leader if they do not have the ability to build a successful team and they can’t build a successful team if they lack the ability to judge people. Edge leaders accept that their strength and results as a leader are dependent on the team they lead. Results are dependent on every person on the team recognizing that the team’s performance is central to individual performance. Accounting firms generally have very talented professionals who contribute to the firm’s success every day and yet, very often work in silos. Edge leaders know how to build teams and teamwork in an environment where very talented people can easily focus on their own performance at the expense of the team’s performance. Corralling very strong, talented people into a cohesive team is a critical skill that requires each leader to successfully navigate the following steps:
    • Establish their leadership: Edge leaders know that to build a great team, they first must build the team’s confidence in their leadership – building trust through integrity and transparency. Each team member needs to have confidence and trust in the integrity, transparency and dependability of the leader, or teamwork just does not happen.
    • Build relationships with each team member: Edge leaders understand the importance of spending time with each team member to understand their skills, their challenges, what they like and what they don’t like. Using these insights, team members should be given decision-making opportunities that align them with projects where they have the most talent. Edge leaders understand the importance of personally coaching and working with each team member to maximize each team member’s skill, career path and client experience as an integral part of building the relationship.
    • Foster teamwork: The Edge leader recognizes the importance to team building of providing opportunities for team members to work together, to share ideas, to be comfortable in asking for help and to successfully complete projects as a team. To create a successful team, it is critical that team members establish positive relationships with one another. Edge leaders know the importance of listening to the concerns of team members and of communicating issues in a positive, constructive way that the team can address. Finally, Edge leaders know the difference between listening versus telling.
    • Set ground rules and expectations: Edge leaders set boundaries within an empowerment model. Empowering team members is critical in allowing decision-making to flow to each team member. Boundaries must be established so that the decisions being made are appropriate to the level and skill of the team member. It is critical that expectations around individual performance and team performance be clearly explained. Edge leaders set the expectation that the team must function as a team and that each member of the team, including the leader, is responsible for the success of all other members of the team and therefore, the team itself. Edge leaders enforce both the boundaries and performance expectations in a constructive way in order to build the talent and confidence of each team member and the team as a unit. Edge leaders ensure that when discussing performance, the discussion is about both the individual and the team.
  2. Firm first: This is an absolute. If there is any member of your leadership team who exhibits behaviors and actions that are not firm-first in intent, challenge the behavior once, and then if there is no change, it’s time for a harder decision. Edge leaders know that for the firm to be successful and to achieve its long-term vision and strategy, there is no room for “me-first” or silos. Each team leader must lead their team within a common and shared vision that is based on what is best for the firm and not the team or any individual team member.
  3. Execution of strategy: There should be no question as you assess your leadership team along this characteristic. As the leader of the firm you have been clear on communicating the strategy and vision for the future. Your team has been involved in developing the strategies and the execution plan. If any member of your team is not willing or able to execute against the strategies, then that individual cannot be part of your leadership team.
  4. Communications: A hallmark of an Edge leader is someone with strong communications skills, whether they are communicating good news or not-so-good news. Assess how your leadership team communicates with you and talk to some team members about how well their team leader communicates with them. This is a learned skill, so if you have a leader who is not quite there as an Edge leader in this area, provide training, which should benefit you and the entire team.
  5. Character and integrity: If any of your leadership team creates even one issue around ethics, character or integrity, it’s time to change, because no training will change a person’s moral compass.

The above measures will clearly allow the firm Edge leader to assess how effective their leadership team is and answer the questions:

  • Are they or can they become Edge leaders?
  • Can they help drive the success and strategy of the firm?
  • Are they building great teams and future leaders?

As the firm leader, your success is directly impacted by how well each member of your leadership team performs. Your team needs to lead from the edge, share your vision, believe in your strategy and love the culture that you created. If they do, the team will have a positive impact on your leadership and on the firm’s performance across all metrics that matter.

“My role is to set the tone at the top, set the narrative and then make sure that all the other leaders get their teams on the same page.” – Kevin O’Connell, leader of MGO

You set the expectations. Then it becomes mission-critical to communicate the important responsibility each team leader owns to drive their teams consistent with the long-term vision and culture of the firm. Finally, it is so important for the firm Edge leader to communicate clearly to the entire leadership team that in order for the firm to achieve the level of performance that reflects a standout, high-performing firm, they have to drive their teams to the level of a standout, high-performing team.

We addressed culture from the beginning. That was not by accident but rather my thinking and the thinking of all leaders I interviewed that it starts and ends with culture. Edge leaders know that it is their actions, communications and leadership team that have the most direct impact on the firm’s actual culture. The leadership team is the front line in terms of driving the culture throughout the firm and that is one of, if not the key reason why choosing each member of the leadership team is so critical to the success of the firm and the success of the firm leader. It is why assessing the leadership team to ensure constant alignment with the culture, vision and long-term strategy is one of the most critical responsibilities of the firm’s Edge leader.

“You give life to the culture through the people you have as leaders in the firm – they are the ones that bring it down throughout the firm.” – Kevin Keane, leader of PKF O’Connor Davies

The success in driving culture is directly related to the cohesiveness of the leadership team operating as a team with a shared vision and commitment to how the firm should operate (its culture). Central to their ability to drive culture is having the right talent throughout the firm. I don’t think any leader, center or Edge, would disagree with the idea that the firm’s talent is so critical to the firm’s ability to be successful. I think every leader would agree that the quality of the firm’s talent is directly related to how effective the firm’s leaders are in judging every team member’s potential, coaching to help each team member achieve excellence and working hard to make sure the firm has the best talent at all levels.

“At the end of the day, the firm with the best people wins.” – Steve McCarty, leader of UHY

Moving that concept up, I would say that the firm with the best leaders wins. Assessing the effectiveness of the leadership team is not a once-in-awhile exercise. It should be an annual process linked to the performance evaluation of each leader coupled with goal setting for the upcoming year.

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